Do older people prefer spicy foods? Yes, according to the emerging science of smell and taste. At around 40, apparently, people’s taste buds start to fade. They lose the ability to taste, in particular, sweet and sour. But some foods do retain their impact: those in the category of “sensory irritants”—that is, foods such as chilli, pepper, horseradish and wasabi that work on the body not through taste or smell but through the “chemosensory system ” (which conveys temperature, touch, pain etc). And so the older you get, the more you seek such foods out.
In America, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, the spicy food industry is currently booming. And, say commentators, this is driven by the baby boomer generation, which has unrivalled purchasing power and, because it is ageing, prefers spicy food. It’s an intriguing theory—but what’s missing is hard data. The Boston Globe article, for example, cites as evidence the fact that of the 2m annual visitors to the website Fiery-Foods.com, 80 per cent are men over 45. But is this really because older people prefer spicy foods, or just becuase middle aged men tend to be more interested in food and cooking (and have greater purchasing power), and so are more likely to hang out on such websites?
What, I wonder, about in Britain? Are oldies the main consumers of spicy food here? I have my doubts. The clientele of Indian and Thai restaurants has never struck me as particularly grey-haired. Young people seem as likely as old to enjoy sushi—with its eye-watering accompaniment of wasabi. In my limited experience, older people have always seemed more naturally suspicious than the young of strange “foreign” flavours, and so are more likely to favourfoods that are bland.